Starring: Waad Mohammad, Reem Abdullah, Ahd Kamel, Abdullahrahman Al Gohania, Sultan Al Assaf. Directed by Haifaa al-Mansour (98 minutes).
Reviewed by Randeep Purewall
Wadjda has generated so much publicity since its release at the Venice Film Festival in August 2013, one fears that the hype surrounding Haifaa al-Mansour’s debut feature would overshadow the film itself. Thankfully, al-Mansour has made a film that stands on its own merits as a funny, uplifting and endearing story of a girl wanting to buy a bicycle.
Wadjda is the title character played by Mohammad, a spunky, entrepreneurial ten-year old who wears sneakers to the madrassa, listens to rock and roll and dreams of buying a bicycle and racing one of the neighbourhood boys, Abdullah (Algohania). Her mother (Reem Abdullah), when not distracted by Wadjda’s antics, does her best to convince her husband (Sultan Al Assaf) not to take a second wife.
At the madrassa, Wadjda is frequently censured by the headmistress Ms. Hussa (Ahd Kamel) for selling soccer bracelets, not wearing her hijaab and for acting as a go-between between girls inside the school and the boys outside. The headmistress thinks she may have gotten through to Wadjda however when she convinces the girl to enter a Qu’ran recitation competition for which the First Prize is enough money to allow Wadjda to buy the bicycle she hankers after.
Al-Mansour has created an engaging film which touches on some of the issues faced by women in Saudi Arabian society through Wadjda, her mother and Ms. Hussa. Wadjda, irreverent and care-free, has to hear from her mother and Ms. Hussa how girls cannot ride bikes and to live with the feeling of being second-best to her father for not being born a son. In one scene, Wadjda sees an empty space on her father’s family tree where she had placed a sticker with her name on: only the male branches of the family are included.
Ms. Hussa is a modern-day Wackford Squeers: cold, unfeeling and embittered by an inegalitarian social culture. She chastises schoolgirls for laughing, telling them a woman’s voice is her nakedness and in one scene, publicly shames two students for engaging in “forbidden” acts, after which no girl may exchange flowers or letters or hold hands with one another. Wadjda’s mother lives in fear her husband will take another wife so he can have a son. She tries on a dress she sees in a shop window not because she likes it but because Wadjda’s father might do so.
These three female characters form the heart of “Wadjda” and are performed wonderfully with pluck, steel and grace by Mohammad, Kemel and Abdullah respectively. From start to finish, it is Wadjda, who wins our hearts, as she smarts her way out of trouble, takes advantage of an opportunity or flirts convention. The film is not without its saccharine moments including when Abdullah tells Wadjda that he wants to marry her when she grows up. Those frills aside, Wadjda is a charming film about a girl who wants her bike, her freedom, which alone makes it worth the hype.